Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Clinton's And Kaine's Faith Traditions Are Consistent With Political Liberalism

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August 3, 20164:50 AM ET
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Hillary Clinton was a devout church-attending Methodist as a young woman. During and after college, she retained her Methodist identity even as she moved left politically. She represents the "social gospel" wing of the denomination. Her VP choice, Tim Kaine, comes from a comparable tradition in the Catholic church.


Presidential candidates routinely say they pray to God and hold religious beliefs. This year, we've heard how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both were baptized as children and both have attended church. So have their running mates. But they come from different traditions and talk about their faith in different ways. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been exploring the religious backgrounds of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. And he joins us now.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, we are starting this morning with Hillary Clinton. Some people may know she was raised as a Methodist. We don't hear a lot about her faith though, do we?

GJELTEN: No, we don't, Renee. But there is a really good account of her religious upbringing in her book, "It Takes a Village," which she wrote more than 20 years ago when she was first lady. She talked about growing up in Park Ridge, Ill., and attending the First United Methodist Church there with her family. Here's an excerpt of that book where she writes about her family's spiritual life. I had our NPR colleague Miranda Kennedy read it for us.

MIRANDA KENNEDY, BYLINE: (Reading) We talked with God, walked with God, ate, studied and argued with God. Each night, we knelt by our beds to pray before we went to sleep. We said grace at dinner, thanking God for all the blessings bestowed. God was always present to us, a much esteemed, much addressed member of the family.

MONTAGNE: And Tom, why are we not hearing Hillary Clinton there?

GJELTEN: Well, that's actually interesting, Renee. Hillary Clinton did an audio version of the book back then, but it was edited. And for whatever reason, she left out a lot of the personal stuff. You know, she's never been someone to wear her religion on her sleeve. Her colleagues in the U.S. Senate knew how important her faith was to her. But, you know, in general, it's been a pretty private thing. On the other hand, we have seen her talking about her faith in this presidential campaign. There was a town hall, for example, last January when a woman stood up and asked Clinton about her faith. Here's what she said.


HILLARY CLINTON: My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith has led me to believe that the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself. And that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do.

GJELTEN: And here she is really speaking as a good Methodist. There's a strong social gospel message in the Methodist tradition. And it's clearly one Hillary Clinton is totally familiar with. When she was first lady, she worshipped at the Foundry United Methodist Church here in Washington. She was actually back there last September for a celebration of the church's anniversary. And she talked then about what the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley, used to say.


CLINTON: Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.

MONTAGNE: And that is a famous quote, isn't it?

GJELTEN: Yeah, it is, Renee. It's kind of the Methodist motto. And by the way, it was featured in a video that the Clinton campaign released just a few days ago. But I think the important point here is that Hillary Clinton stands squarely in the center of Methodist church teaching. When she talks about the importance of loving your neighbor, it does come straight out of John Wesley. I got that from the Reverend Wendy Deichmann, who is a professor at United Theological Seminary.

WENDY DEICHMANN: John Wesley said you could have all the theological correct answers and yet really not be a Christian if you don't feel the love of Jesus Christ in your heart and actually practice that toward your neighbor.

GJELTEN: The way Reverend Deichmann described John Wesley's ministry in his time back in 18th century England, he was something of a do-gooder.

DEICHMANN: There's poverty. There's unemployment, alcoholism. And Wesley got involved in trying to address - and requiring, actually - the people called Methodists to help to address these social concerns.

GJELTEN: So this is the origin of this so-called social gospel tradition in the Methodist Church. Now, remember Donald Trump said earlier this summer that we really don't know anything about Hillary in terms of religion. He was criticized for that. But in a sense, it was understandable because I think a lot of people have come to associate being a Christian with being evangelical. But those who really know the Methodist tradition do see how Hillary Clinton is part of it. I talked, for example, to Michael Farris. He's a conservative evangelical activist and a founder of the Moral Majority.

MICHAEL FARRIS: She is a part of a historical denomination that is a Christian denomination. It is much more politically and theologically liberal, but it's a - you know, a real faith tradition.

MONTAGNE: Now, Tom, as you said, Hillary Clinton has been somewhat low key in speaking about her faith. But her running mate, Tim Kaine, seems quite comfortable talking about being a Catholic, which is a big part of his political identity.

GJELTEN: Right, Renee. He was also raised in a very religious family. He's talked about how . And Kaine went to a Catholic boys' high school, a Jesuit school. And an important moment was when he was at Harvard Law School. He decided to take a break from his studies and went to serve as a missionary at a Jesuit mission in Honduras. He talked about that experience in an interview this summer on C-SPAN, saying that he had grown tired of his Catholic worship but then rediscovered it in Honduras.


TIM KAINE: Here, mass would be two and a half hours long, and it was just so vibrant and chaotic and fun. So I learned a lot from them. But I think probably, especially, the - how a strong spiritual life can help you deal with the challenges that we all face in life.

GJELTEN: And he apparently never went back to a big, suburban Catholic parish. For the past 30 years or so, he's been attending a predominantly African-American Catholic church in Richmond, Va.

MONTAGNE: And as you just said, he comes from a Jesuit background. How does that go along with his political views?

GJELTEN: That's actually important;. This is something he has in common with Hillary Clinton. Just as she comes from the liberal side of Protestantism, Kaine comes from the liberal side of Catholicism. The Jesuits have that same social justice orientation represented now, of course, by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope. So Tim Kaine's religious background, like Hillary Clinton's, can support his politics. You actually have two candidates whose faith traditions are consistent with political liberalism.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

MONTAGNE: And that is NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten.

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